Taking a Turn in Season Four
July 4th, 2010
You can follow along with the Cultural Catchup Project by following me on Twitter (@Memles), by subscribing to the category’s feed, or by bookmarking the Cultural Catchup Project page where I’ll be posting a link to each installment.
In discussing this series of episodes as a collective whole, I am neither making a commentary on their individual merits nor suggesting that they are all working towards the same thematic purpose. Rather, as I noted in my most recent “Angel” post, I want to talk about the two-parters in their own posts, and so I’m sort of forced to lump these together to avoid going overboard with the reviews (not that you’d mind, but I do need to spread out my time). Plus, the plot moves so quickly in this series of episodes that it’s hard to really write about them individually after watching a number of them in succession: any of the positivity at the end of “Doomed” is complicated by “The I in Team” and “Goodbye Iowa,” to the point where I need to consider the progress of the arcs as a whole rather than the individual segments.
And so before I take a brief glimpse at “A New Man” individually (since it doesn’t have much to do with these arcs, even as it intersects with them in subtle ways), I want to focus on Riley, Maggie and Adam at this important juncture of Buffy’s fourth season, where the series very quickly transitions from a pretty open-ended season structure to a clear, objective-driven protagonist/antagonist structure, albeit one which remains complex (although perhaps not as complex as I might have liked).
If there’s one consequence of the responses to early posts on Buffy’s fourth season that has really affected the way I am watching the series, it’s the negative responses to Riley as a character. I’m constantly on edge waiting for that moment where Riley does something horrible that would cause me to turn on the character, and so far I haven’t found it (we’ll get to the two-parter during the week, but spoiler: I didn’t find it there either). It isn’t that Riley is perfect, or that I really care about his romantic future with Buffy, but rather that I find the character has grown suitably complicated enough as it relates to key issues to the season’s themes. I love the notion that the Initiative is just a job for Riley, and that he never asked any questions: the scenes of Buffy integrating into the Initiative and proving infinitely more inquisitive than anyone else are sort of played for comedy, but it presents Buffy and Riley (who the latter tries to claim are kindred spirits with more in common than they could have ever imagined) as two very different kinds of demon hunters, which nicely extends the divide between the two groups into their new relationship (which “Doomed” established as a real relationship, after the initial awkwardness from “Hush” settled).
And while I’ll agree that Riley is still not the most dynamic character in the world, I thought that “Goodbye Iowa” did a good job of making his position within the story quite dynamic. The idea that Buffy is beholden to destiny was an early theme within the series, and so Riley being beholden to the drug regiment which (more than any sort of innate ability) turned him into a soldier makes for a compelling parallel. To some degree I worry that the parallels are piling up too quickly, and that the “Riley = Buffy” side of things will become repetitive (or worse, redundant) in the episodes ahead, but for now I think it justifies adding Blucas to the title credits (which happens in “Doomed,” I believe). He does some unfortunate things while trapped in withdrawl in “…Iowa,” but I thought Blucas handled the character’s struggles quite effectively, and I think it’s meaningful that we sort of end up following Riley’s arc independent of Buffy for a while. While Buffy is obviously central to his concerns (both in terms of doubting the Initiative in “The I in Team” after Walsh is trapped in her lie about Buffy being murdered and in terms of his withdrawl combining with his concern that Buffy was responsible for Walsh’s death), the character has a history all his own now, and I’m interesting to see how that informs the character’s arc moving forward.
Lindsay Crouse is an Oscar-nominated actress, but Maggie Walsh is a pretty insignificant role in the grand scheme of things: while the character is functional (in terms of providing a bridge between Buffy and Riley in her role as professor, as well as providing a figurehead for the Initiative, the character’s arc is entirely one-sided. Her death has great meaning, considering how she is turned into a psychotic scapegoat for the Initiative’s leadership and how much her death affects Riley, but her life was so undefined that there really isn’t much for me to say about her. We learned more about her opinion on Riley and her motivations as part of the Initiative in her final scenes than we did in her entire run on the show, as she spent so much time as a hard-nosed Psychology professor that we have no information to go on. We learn after her death that she was particularly protective of Riley out of her “children,” and that this sort of maternal perversion extended to the monstrous Adam (more on him in a moment), but it’s not as if we really get to see that play out ahead of her tragic end.
“The I in Team” very much depends on our willingness to accept that Walsh would so quickly have Buffy killed, and at that point I knew so little about her character that I didn’t entirely buy it. It’s one thing to know that she was harbouring some sort of secret (that’s been apparent for a long while), or that she’s willing to do whatever it takes. However, there was no desperation in her response, Riley’s brief questions about 314 very quickly translating into “we need to kill Buffy” without much provocation. The confusion surrounding Maggie’s actions allows for Riley’s psychological turmoil in “Goodbye Iowa,” of course, but it makes this feel less like an arc and more like a plot point coming to an end. Maggie was a vessel, a way to get Riley and Buffy together and then useless once a new threat emerged. I don’t know if it’s an issue with money or time on Crouse’s end, but it seemed as if they needed to give us more with Maggie in the episodes leading up to that decision so that she didn’t seem quite so transient. Perhaps that’s the point of the character: after all, very few people remember that Frankenstein isn’t actually the name of the monster but rather the name of the doctor who created it, so she becomes yet another mad scientist likely to be forgotten in the wake of her creation. However, whatever meaning we get from that fails to really make these episodes resonate on a character-level, playing out instead as the plot wheels turning in an entertaining, but somewhat cold, fashion.
I haven’t really put considerable thought into it, but I’m pretty sure that Adam is the first element of Buffy which really suffers in comparison to more recent television series. I completely see what Adam represents, and I even like some of the ideas it raises, but Battlestar Galactica went so far into questions of human/Other identity in light of species confusion that there is something about Adam that I just can’t take seriously. I don’t know if it’s that the character literally wears his trifecta of identities on his sleeve (and face, and chest, etc.), or the way the character is a sort of brooding philosoph, but the way in which the character has been designed is attacking themes of identity with a jackhammer as opposed to a chisel. From the moment he wakes up, the character exists in this form, and so it’s not as if we have any backstory for his identity crisis or any insight into his creation. Rather, he is an all-powerful evil monster who happens to be searching for the answers of the universe by flaying whatever poor souls (or soulless demons) that he comes across (there’s no specific for it, but I’m sure some electronics have also been victims of his rampage). It’s not as if his search for an identity is developing a more interesting character: instead, it’s a thematic translator, capable of putting in disks in order to spout out some exposition when it’s needed, which feels like a poor replacement for Walsh (who, in her personal relationship with Buffy, was a more intriguing antagonist).
I see how Adam and Riley are very much alike, and that in some ways Adam helps to make Riley’s situation more complex (in that he sits somewhere between Maggie’s monster and a real human being), but I think it’s an issue of how much the show seems to be throwing out by introducing the character. This section of episodes robs the season of the ambiguity which so perfectly suited the arrival of a neutered Spike into the narrative, replacing a complex antagonistic organization with unclear motivations into the source of an unspeakable evil who needs to be neutralized immediately. It may have made the beginning of the season a bit tough to take at times, but the lack of a clear “evil” in this season has helped capture the uncertainty of starting over in college, and so to see it all come together and move in a new direction quite so quickly means that there will inevitably be some narrative whiplash. I think Adam is the definitive example of this, a plot development which makes sense but doesn’t feel like a natural progression of much of anything.
However, the important thing is that the long-term character arcs are still in good shape, and for the most part I’d say that things are looking pretty good. Spike continues to try to separate himself from Buffy and the Scooby Gang while still relying on them in order to save his life (as “Hostile 17” has popped back on the Initiative’s radar), Xander continues to be quite happy with Anya, and Willow and Tara’s relationship continues to evolve (with some nice subtlety – really enjoyed Tara’s sabotage of the spell in “Goodbye Iowa” and the way in which Willow begins to resent Buffy’s interest in the Initiative and how it’s changing their group dynamics. “Doomed” captures much of that quite nicely, as Willow and Xander struggle to find a place for themselves within Buffy’s work and take a trip back to high school to put their lives into perspective (what with Percy’s “nerd squad” comments).
What I like about “A New Man” is how it captures Giles’ own sort of stasis within this particular world, giving us the first real Giles showcase of the season and an important episode (I gather) for Giles going forward. It’s too early to really comment on his season’s arc right now, but the episode raises an important question about what Giles’ role is now that Buffy is no longer affiliated with the Watcher’s Council. He’s unquestionably helpful, but to be left out of the loop regarding Riley’s affiliation with the Initiative is a sign that he is now a resource more than an advisor, a database of information as opposed to someone who Buffy relies on to help her get through tough situations. Giles has been drifting all season, something which has remained largely below the surface of each episode’s narrative, and so to see that come to the surface in Giles’ frustrations (and his susceptibility to Ethan’s nefarious doings) is a great way to force us to keep that in mind going forward. Plus, frankly, anything that pairs Spike and Giles is going to be to our advantage, and Spike’s desire for money and Giles’ desire for assistance was as great as one would presume: throw in Giles’ fantastic terrorizing of Walsh, and you’ve got a fun episode that will likely become more meaningful as the season (or even the series) moves forward.
Ultimately, though, I’m reserving judgment on a lot of this: while I do think that Walsh is dumped too soon, and that Buffy enters and then exits the Initiative at such a breakneck pace that it leaves all sorts of potential on the table, a dramatic mid-season twist like this very much depends on where things go from here. And while I find Adam less than subtle, I like where they’re taking Riley, and as I’ll get to early in the week there’s a lot to like about the two-parter which follow…perhaps because it ignores the basic ramifications of these twists and delves into the show’s past with these themes instead.
- I really like the notion that the Initiative thought that the Slayer was a “myth,” a story demon parents used to scare their children – those sorts of nuances were one of the many areas where Buffy’s relationship with the Initiative could have been given more time to play out, but I still liked it as a small detail.
- I understand that the scarf ends up being tremendously meaningful as it helps Riley get through his time in the hospital, but I ended up getting really distracted by what a bizarre fashion choice it was for Buffy, and so it made sense that it was a necessary plot tool rather than an aesthetic statement.
- I remain very, very confused about the military’s role in terms of the Initiative: they seem to imply that Walsh was the corrupt one, but the Doctor was clearly in on it as well, so there’s a good chance this project ran deeper than just her own research. The lack of any command structure has helped keep the season focused on the characters, but it’s raised questions that I think the show needs to at least play towards addressing soon – we get that Riley didn’t ask questions before, but we did, and we could use some answers.
- If there’s a Buffy fan out there who hasn’t seen Battlestar Galactica, do check it out: there were a lot of elements to the Adam/Riley storylines in “Goodbye Iowa” that really spoke to some of the questions regarding Cylon identity in that series, and BSG follows through on those ideas in a way that this storyline is clearly not interested in.